Oxfam’s “living wage” sets a very low standard of living

Collecting cardboard in the shadow of the world’s most expensive office tower

Oxfam’s proposed living wage of HK$54.7/hour for Hong Kong is based on a stingy set of circumstances, and while it may allow corporations to make a song-and-dance about their social responsibility, such a wage would do little to alleviate poverty in our city: it may even make matters worse, normalising a miserly quality of life into “social responsibility” lore.

Working with the fruitless Centre for Quality of Life at Chinese University of Hong Kong, Oxfam spent four months poring the city’s Household Expenditure Surveys, totting up average spends on food, housing and other expenses.

The NGO’s first mistake is to presume a 6-day work week, putting the worker to work 2,496 hours per year (8 hours a day, 6 days a week for 52 weeks) instead of the 2,080 (8 hours, 5 days a week for 52 weeks) usually set by living wage standards.

That’s a 20% increase in working hours, and gives our Hong Kong worker only one day off a week. While the internet is full of entrepreneurs who claim to work 24-7, a 48-hour working week is surely not desirable for hourly-rate workers who own nothing of the business for which they toil. The decision to set the hourly rate based on 6-day week appears to be a throwback – even Hong Kong’s government has been working to reduce its civil servants’ working hours to a five day week, citing improved quality of life as its goal.

Prison conditions

Free time isn’t the only thing squandered in Oxfam’s calculations: space is totally overlooked too. The living wage numbers are based (for a single person) on the employee living in a 70sq.ft subdivided flat… a box actually smaller than the 75sq.ft allotted to maximum security prisoners in Hong Kong. What’s more, most subdivided flats in Hong Kong are subdivided illegally, and pose significant health and safety issues.

Of course Hong Kong is not flush with space, and many families must make do with tiny quarters. As a poverty issue, this is something to address, and many NGOs are tackling the issue of “cage homes” – even more reason to avoid normalising such places into something as visible as a “living wage”. Oxfam’s calculations also appear to be rather optimistic. While there are illegal cage homes available for a few thousand dollars in the New Territories, a legal refurbished 100sq.ft (net) apartment on Hong Kong Island cannot be found for under HK$8,000.

Oxfam did not respond to queries from Blue Skies China, but in its press release it maintains “the living wage …acts as good reference for the government when they review the minimum wage,” and that its proposed living wage is an extra step to “make Hong Kong a more equitable society”.

Prof. Wong Hung, Associate Professor, Department of Social Work, CUHK (right); Kalina Tsang, Head of Oxfam’s Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan Programme (middle); and Wong Shek-hung, Hong Kong Programme Manager at Oxfam (left), shared Oxfam’s latest report, which put forth the first local living wage rate: HK$54.7/hour.

We disagree. Closing the wealth gap in Hong Kong will not be achieved by throwing a few dollars at the problem. We need to raise living standards, especially and urgently for the poor, and that starts by raising the bar on what constitutes “minimum living standards” to well above a 6-day work week and living in a 70sq ft box. We have to be realistic, to a degree, but not so brutally realistic to enshrine gulag conditions into the “living wage” norm.

Paying employees a little bit more to “enjoy” these miserly standards may alleviate guilt (just as glass recycling allows sustainability consultants to continue enjoying air-freighted bottled beer): but once a corporation has a “living wage” badge, a press release and a CSR award, the actual conditions behind that wage may well be overlooked.

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